Finding Your Own Voice

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 In an advice column, a 15-year-old boy wrote, “I am 15, I have zits, my voice is still high, and no girl wants anything to do with me. What should I do?” The answer was really good. 

It’s not just you. Most 15-year-old boys are gawky and awkward and have zits. Girls your age are more interested in older boys. The question isn’t what can you do now to improve your odds with girls, because there is really very little you can do now. The real question to focus on is: what kind of 18 year-old do you want to be? What can you do over the next three years to redefine yourself and create the person you think will have more success? Can you start lifting weights? Take martial arts and get a black belt? Get really good at some activity, other than video games or web surfing, so you have something going for you? 

Many of us have experienced or observed a metamorphosis from the classic 98-pound weakling getting sand kicked in his face to a respected martial arts Master. Martial arts is truly a great way to redefine yourself. 

By embracing the martial arts to the degree you and I did, we took major steps to redefine who we are and how we fit in the world. I thank the heavens for putting me in proximity to Walt Bone and Hank Farrah so that on February 12, 1974, I could take my first karate class. 

I can’t imagine what kind of life I would have led or what kind of person I would be had my life not taken that turn. I love having a career in the martial arts, being a black belt and a teacher. Even before training, I used to read biographies of all of my sports heroes. My goal was to become an athlete or a teacher. A career in the Martial arts provided me the opportunity to do both, and I am forever grateful. My goal now is to simply leave the martial arts in a better place than where I found it. That’s a goal that motivates and rewards me daily. 

When we learn from a specific instructor, it’s natural for us to mimic somewhat his or her teaching methods, processes of control, and attitudes about teaching and the martial arts. Walt Bone taught me to teach through negative reinforcement. Never compliment a student. Always tell them what they are doing wrong. That’s what I did for years. I became such an expert at pointing out things that could be improved upon that I did the same thing outside of school until a friend said I was hypercritical. 

When Mr. Bone said it was an unwritten rule that no one should open a school within five miles, I took that as the law. When Mr. Farrah explained that the purpose of the square block is to block one attacker in front of you with a modified side block and, at the same time, block another attacker from the side with a rising block, that is exactly what I believed. 

And, that’s how I taught the square block for almost two decades, until the day I was on a StairMaster® in a gym at the Cooper Institute, watching a karate class in front of me on the basketball court. The instructor was very good, and the 10 or so green belt adults were very attentive as he taught them the square block exactly as I was taught it and as I still taught it. But as I watched, I couldn’t help but think: that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. I wondered how any of us could keep a straight face while explaining this fantasy block. 

Finding Your Own Voice is the process of questioning everything you teach, and all the systems within your school, to make sure they represent you and how you want to treat people. You want to make sure your program authentically reflects your beliefs… that it doesn’t simply regurgitate what your instructor perpetuated on you. Just as an abused boy tends to become an abusive adult, abusive teaching practices, insane rituals, faulty reasoning, and myths can be passed on generation to generation until someone breaks the cycle and “finds his voice.” 

Finding Your Own Voice simply means you work to have a deeper understanding of the system, so that you don’t keep explaining the square block as I did. You make the style serve your students, rather than the other way around. Just because your beloved martial arts instructor said it doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because some guy said it in the 1920s doesn’t mean it’s right for today. Don’t strive to become a clone of your instructor or the masters in your system. Strive to be authentic as a person who uses martial arts as a way of expressing himself or herself. 

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